BAD LOCATIONS: Many French towns have been trapped in obsolete places for centuries

John Speed (1610), 17th century map of Beaumaris. Available on Wiki Commons.

Only three of the 20 largest cities in Britain are located near the site of Roman towns, compared with 16 in France. That is one of the findings of research by Guy Michaels (London School of Economics) and Ferdinand Rauch (University of Oxford), which uses the contrasting experiences of British and French cities after the fall of the Roman Empire as a natural experiment to explore the impact of history on economic geography – and what leads cities to get stuck in undesirable locations, a big issue for modern urban planners.

The study, published in the February 2018 issue of the Economic Journal, notes that in France, post-Roman urban life became a shadow of its former self, but in Britain it completely disappeared. As a result, medieval towns in France were much more likely to be located near Roman towns than their British counterparts. But many of these places were obsolete because the best locations in Roman times weren’t the same as in the Middle Ages, when access to water transport was key.

The world is rapidly urbanising, but some of its growing cities seem to be misplaced. Their locations are hampered by poor access to world markets, shortages of water or vulnerability to flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters. This outcome – cities stuck in the wrong places – has potentially dire economic and social consequences.

When thinking about policy responses, it is worth looking at the past to see how historical events can leave cities trapped in locations that are far from ideal. The new study does that by comparing the evolution of two initially similar urban networks following a historical calamity that wiped out one, while leaving the other largely intact.

The setting for the analysis of urban persistence is north-western Europe, where the authors trace the effects of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire more than 1,500 years ago through to the present day. Around the dawn of the first millennium, Rome conquered, and subsequently urbanised, areas including those that make up present day France and Britain (as far north as Hadrian’s Wall). Under the Romans, towns in the two places developed similarly in terms of their institutions, organisation and size.

But around the middle of the fourth century, their fates diverged. Roman Britain suffered invasions, usurpations and reprisals against its elite. Around 410CE, when Rome itself was first sacked, Roman Britain’s last remaining legions, which had maintained order and security, departed permanently. Consequently, Roman Britain’s political, social and economic order collapsed. Between 450CE and 600CE, its towns no longer functioned.

Although some Roman towns in France also suffered when the Western Roman Empire fell, many of them survived and were taken over by Franks. So while the urban network in Britain effectively ended with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, there was much more urban continuity in France.

The divergent paths of these two urban networks makes it possible to study the spatial consequences of the ‘resetting’ of an urban network, as towns across Western Europe re-emerged and grew during the Middle Ages. During the High Middle Ages, both Britain and France were again ruled by a common elite (Norman rather than Roman) and had access to similar production technologies. Both features make is possible to compare the effects of the collapse of the Roman Empire on the evolution of town locations.

Following the asymmetric calamity and subsequent re-emergence of towns in Britain and France, one of three scenarios can be imagined:

  • First, if locational fundamentals, such as coastlines, mountains and rivers, consistently favour a fixed set of places, then those locations would be home to both surviving and re-emerging towns. In this case, there would be high persistence of locations from the Roman era onwards in both British and French urban networks.
  • Second, if locational fundamentals or their value change over time (for example, if coastal access becomes more important) and if these fundamentals affect productivity more than the concentration of human activity, then both urban networks would similarly shift towards locations with improved fundamentals. In this case, there would be less persistence of locations in both British and French urban networks relative to the Roman era.
  • Third, if locational fundamentals or their value change, but these fundamentals affect productivity less than the concentration of human activity, then there would be ‘path-dependence’ in the location of towns. The British urban network, which was reset, would shift away from Roman-era locations towards places that are more suited to the changing economic conditions. But French towns would tend to remain in their original Roman locations.

The authors’ empirical investigation finds support for the third scenario, where town locations are path-dependent. Medieval towns in France were much more likely to be located near Roman towns than their British counterparts.

These differences in urban persistence are still visible today; for example, only three of the 20 largest cities in Britain are located near the site of Roman towns, compared with 16 in France. This finding suggests that the urban network in Britain shifted towards newly advantageous locations between the Roman and medieval eras, while towns in France remained in locations that may have become obsolete.

But did it really matter for future economic development that medieval French towns remained in Roman-era locations? To shed light on this question, the researchers focus on a particular dimension of each town’s location: its accessibility to transport networks.

During Roman times, roads connected major towns, facilitating movements of the occupying army. But during the Middle Ages, technical improvements in water transport made coastal access more important. This technological change meant that having coastal access mattered more for medieval towns in Britain and France than for Roman ones.

The study finds that during the Middle Ages, towns in Britain were roughly two and a half times more likely to have coastal access – either directly or via a navigable river – than during the Roman era. In contrast, in France, there was little change in the urban network’s coastal access.

The researchers also show that having coastal access did matter for towns’ subsequent population growth, which is a key indicator of their economic viability. Specifically, they find that towns with coastal access grew faster between 1200 and 1700, and for towns with poor coastal access, access to canals was associated with faster population growth. The investments in the costly building and maintenance of these canals provide further evidence of the value of access to water transport networks.

The conclusion is that many French towns were stuck in the wrong places for centuries, since their locations were designed for the demands of Roman times and not those of the Middle Ages. They could not take full advantage of the improved transport technologies because they had poor coastal access.

Taken together, these findings show that urban networks may reconfigure around locational fundamentals that become more valuable over time. But this reconfiguration is not inevitable, and towns and cities may remain trapped in bad locations over many centuries and even millennia. This spatial misallocation of economic activity over hundreds of years has almost certainly induced considerable economic costs.

‘Our findings suggest lessons for today’s policy-makers – conclude the authors – The conclusion that cities may be misplaced still matters as the world’s population becomes ever more concentrated in urban areas. For example, parts of Africa, including some of its cities, are hampered by poor access to world markets due to their landlocked position and poor land transport infrastructure. Our research suggests that path-dependence in city locations can still have significant costs.’

‘‘Resetting the Urban Network: 117-2012’ by Guy Michaels and Ferdinand Rauch was published in the February 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.

To contact the authors:
Guy Michaels (
Ferdinand Rauch (

THE FINANCIAL POWER OF THE POWERLESS: Evidence from Ottoman Istanbul on socio-economic status, legal protection and the cost of borrowing

In Ottoman Istanbul, privileged groups such as men, Muslims and other elites paid more for credit than the under-privileged – the exact opposite of what happens in a modern economy.

New research by Professors Timur Kuran (Duke University) and Jared Rubin (Chapman University), published in the March 2018 issue of the Economic Journal, explains why: a key influence on the cost of borrowing is the rule of law and in particular the extent to which courts will enforce a credit contract.

In pre-modern Turkey, it was the wealthy who could benefit from judicial bias to evade their creditors – and who, because of this default risk, faced higher interest rates on loans. Nowadays, it is under-privileged people who face higher borrowing costs because there are various institutions through which they can escape loan repayment, including bankruptcy options and organisations that will defend poor defaulters as victims of exploitation.

In the modern world, we take it for granted that the under-privileged incur higher borrowing costs than the upper socio-economic classes. Indeed, Americans in the bottom quartile of the US income distribution usually borrow through pawnshops and payday lenders at rates of around 450% per annum, while those in the top quartile take out short-term loans through credit cards at 13-16%. Unlike the under-privileged, the wealthy also have access to long-term credit through home equity loans at rates of around 4%.

The logic connecting socio-economic status to borrowing costs will seem obvious to anyone familiar with basic economics: the higher costs of the poor reflect higher default risk, for which the lender must be compensated.

The new study sets out to test whether the classic negative correlation between socio-economic status and borrowing cost holds in a pre-modern setting outside the industrialised West. To this end, the authors built a data set of private loans issued in Ottoman Istanbul during the period from 1602 to 1799.

These data reveal the exact opposite of what happens in a modern economy: the privileged paid more for credit than the under-privileged. In a society where the average real interest rate was around 19%, men paid an interest surcharge of around 3.4 percentage points; Muslims paid a surcharge of 1.9 percentage points; and elites paid a surcharge of about 2.3 percentage points (see Figure 1).


What might explain this reversal of relative borrowing costs? Why did socially advantaged groups pay more for credit, not less?

The data led the authors to consider a second factor contributing to the price of credit, often taken for granted: the partiality of the law. Implicit in the logic that explains relative credit costs in modern lending markets is that financial contracts are enforceable impartially when the borrower is able to pay. Thus, the rich pay less for credit because they are relatively unlikely to default and because, if they do, lenders can force repayment through courts whose verdicts are more or less impartial.

But in settings where the courts are biased in favour of the wealthy, creditors will expect compensation for the risk of being unable to obtain restitution. The wealth and judicial partiality effects thus work against each other. The former lowers the credit cost for the rich; the latter raises it.

Islamic Ottoman courts served all Ottoman subjects through procedures that were manifestly biased in favour of clearly defined groups. These courts gave Muslims rights that they denied to Christians and Jews. They privileged men over women.

Moreover, because the courts lacked independence from the state, Ottoman subjects connected to the sultan enjoyed favourable treatment. Theory developed in the new study explains why their weak legal power may translate into strong financial power.

More generally, this research suggests that in a free financial market, any hindrance to the enforcement of a credit contract will raise the borrower’s credit cost. Just as judicial biases in favour of the wealthy raise their interest rates on loans, institutions that allow the poor to escape loan repayment – bankruptcy options, shielding of assets from creditors, organisations that defend poor defaulters as victims of exploitation – raise interest rates charged to the poor.

Today, wealth and credit cost are negatively correlated for multiple reasons. The rich benefit both from a higher capacity to post collateral and from better enforcement of their credit obligations relative to those of the poor.


To contact the authors:
Timur Kuran (; Jared Rubin (

Medieval origins of Spain’s economic geography

The frontier of medieval warfare between Christian and Muslim armies in southern Spain provides a surprisingly powerful explanation of current low-density settlement patterns in those regions. This is the central finding of research by Daniel Oto-Peralías (University of Saint-Andrews), recently presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference in March 2018.

 His study notes that Southern Spain is one of the most deserted areas in Europe in terms of population density, only surpassed by parts of Iceland and the northern part of Scandinavia. It turns out that this outcome has roots going back to medieval times when Spain’s southern plateau was a battlefield between Christian and Muslim armies.

The study documents that Spain stands out in Europe with an anomalous settlement pattern characterised by a very low density in its southern half. Among the ten European regions with the lowest settlement density, six are from southern Spain (while the other four are from Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland).


On average only 29.8% of 10km2 grid cells are inhabited in southern Spain, which is a much lower percentage than in the rest of Europe (with an average of 74.4%). Extreme geographical and climatic conditions do not seem to be the reason for this low settlement density, which the author refers to as ‘Spanish anomaly’.

After ruling out geography as the main explanatory factor for the ‘Spanish anomaly’, the research investigates its historical roots by focusing on the Middle Ages, when the territory was retaken by the Christian kingdoms from Muslim rule.

The hypothesis is that the region’s character as a militarily insecure frontier conditioned the colonisation of the territory, which is tested by taking advantage of the geographical discontinuity in military insecurity created by the Tagus River in central Spain. Historical ‘accidents’ made the colonisation of the area south of the Tagus River very different from colonisation north of it.

The invasions of North Africa’s Almoravid and Almohad empires converted the territory south of the Tagus into a battlefield for a century and a half, this river being a natural defensive border. Continuous warfare and insecurity heavily conditioned the nature of the colonisation process in this frontier region, which was characterised by the leading role of the military orders as agents of colonisation, scarcity of population and a livestock-oriented economy. It resulted in the prominence of castles and the absence of villages, and consequently, a spatial distribution of the population characterised by a very low density of settlements.

The empirical analysis reveals a large difference in settlement density across the River Tagus, whereas there are no differences in geographical and climatic variables across it. In addition, it is shown that the discontinuity in settlement density already existed in the 16th and 18th centuries, and is not therefore the result of migration movements and urban developments taking place recently. Preliminary evidence also indicates that the territory exposed to the medieval ranching frontier is relatively poorer today.

Thus, the study shows that historical frontiers can decisively shape the economic geography of countries. Using Medieval Spain as a case study, it illustrates how the exposure to warfare and insecurity – typical in medieval frontiers– creates incentives for a militarised colonisation based on a few fortified settlements and a livestock-oriented economy, conditioning the occupation of a territory to such an extent to convert it into one of the most deserted areas in Europe. Given the ubiquity of frontiers in history, the mechanisms underlined in the analysis are of general interest and may operate in other contexts.

EHS 2018 special: Foreign sailors in Nelson’s Navy: a forgotten story

by Sara Caputo (University of Cambridge) 


Nelson as a Midshipman, 1775. Available at <;

Few aspects of British history have attracted more patriotic enthusiasm than the nation’s naval exploits at the time of Nelson and Trafalgar. A less-known fact is that during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars against France (1793-1815), the Royal Navy recruited thousands of foreign sailors.

My doctoral research, co-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Robinson College, Cambridge, aims to reconstruct these men’s experiences for the first time, as well as giving an indication of the size of the phenomenon.

A quantitative study conducted on a sample of crews, chosen among those serving the furthest away from Britain – and thus most likely to include foreigners – revealed that 14.03% of the seamen sampled (616 out of 4,392) were born outside Britain or Ireland. Aboard one of the ships stationed in Jamaica in 1813, the proportion rose to 22.83%.

These sailors came from every corner of the world, and their numbers oscillated depending on the British state’s need for skilled seafarers in times of crisis. But their presence is often forgotten in favour of nationalistic narratives of British glory. Quantitative analysis of this kind helps to confirm that the British Navy of the Age of Sail, of Nelson and Trafalgar, was far from being manned only by ‘True Britons’. If Britannia ruled the waves, it was not always entirely by her own devices.

Americans were the largest group found in the sample (176 men), followed by natives of what today is Germany, West Indians, Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, Dutchmen, Portuguese and East Indians. Italians, Frenchmen (even though they were nominally the enemy), Africans and Spaniards were also well represented, and other smaller groups included Poles, South Americans, Russians, Maltese, Finns, one Greek and even – quite surprisingly – a Swiss, an Austrian, a Hungarian and a Chinese.

Previous studies have analysed the composition of crews in the eighteenth century Navy, but because no one has focused specifically on foreigners the samples had been chosen and interrogated in different ways. My research aims to cast light on changes over the whole time span of these wars, and across different geographical stations.

Three ships were chosen from each of three points in time – roughly the beginning, middle and end of the wars. The results show that the proportion of foreigners was lower in 1793, at the start of the conflict, with only 6.24% of the men in the sample coming from abroad, but went up to 14.94% in 1802, halfway through the war, and 18.49% by 1813, towards the end of it.

This is likely to be a symptom of the Navy’s increasing hunger for manpower, as the war progressed with heavy casualties and the British reserves of seamen becoming depleted.

As is often the case when dealing with matters of national belonging, the status of many of the men in the sample is potentially ambiguous: legal distinctions between ‘British’ and ‘foreign’ were complex and far from clear-cut, depending on ideas of birthplace and ‘blood’, but also on cultural aspects such as personal choice, length of service, political loyalties, social status and general usefulness to the country.

If the British armed forces today only employ UK or Irish nationals, or Commonwealth nationals with settled status, this was not always the case: 200 years ago, men we would nowadays define as foreigners were actively sought and recruited by the British monarchy, and played an important role in British society and economy at large, as well as in the construction of an overseas empire.

Modelling regional imbalances in English plebeian migration

by Adam Crymble (University of Hertfordshire)


FJohn Thomas Smith, Vagabondiana,1817

We often hear complaints of migrant groups negatively influencing British life. Grievances against them are many: migrants bring with them their language, cultural values, and sometimes a tendency to stick together rather than integrate. The story is never that simple, but these issues can get under the skin of the locals, leading to tension. Britain has always been home to migrants, and the tensions are nothing new, but two hundred years ago those outsiders were from much closer afield. Often they came from just down the road, as close as the next parish over. And yet they were still treated as outsiders by the law. Under the vagrancy laws, poor migrants in particular ran the risk of being arrested, whipped, put to hard labour, and expelled back home.

It was a way to make sure that welfare was only spent on local people. But thanks to this system, we’ve got a unique way to tell which parts of Britain were particularly connected to one another, and which bits just weren’t that interested in each other. Each of those expelled individuals left a paper trail, and that means we can calculate which areas sent more or fewer vagrants to places like London than we would expect. And that in turn tells us which parts of the country had the biggest potential to impact on the culture, life, and economy of the capital.

As it happens, it was Bristol that sent more paupers to London than anywhere else in England between 1777 and 1786, including at least 312 individuals. They did not arrive through any plan to overwhelm the metropolis, but through hundreds of individual decisions by Bristolians who thought they’d have a go at London life.

From a migration perspective, this tells us that the connectedness between London and Bristol was particularly strong at this time. Even when we correct for factors such as distance, cost of living, and population, Bristol was still substantially over-sending lower class migrants to the capital.

There are many possible explanations for this close connection. The tendency for migrants to move towards larger urban centres meant Bristolians had few other options for ‘bigger’ destinations than smaller towns. Improvements to the road network also meant the trip was both cheaper and more comfortable by the 1780s. And the beginning of a general decline in the Bristol domestic service economy was met with a rise in opportunities in the growing metropolis. These combined factors may have made the connections between London and Bristol particularly strong.

Other urban pockets of the country too showed a similarly strong connection to London, particularly in the West Midlands and West Country. Birmingham, Coventry, Worcester, Bath, Exeter, and Gloucester were all sending peculiarly high numbers of paupers to eighteenth century London. So too was Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-Tweed, despite being located far to the north and almost certainly requiring a sea journey.

But not everywhere saw London as a draw. Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, and Cheshire – a band of counties within walking distance of the sprouting mills of the industrialising North – all sent fewer people to London than we would expect. This suggests that the North was able to retain people, uniquely acting as a competitor to London at this time. It also means that places like Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne may have had a bigger impact on the culture of the metropolis in the eighteenth century than places such as York and Sheffield. And that may have had lasting impact that we do not yet fully understand. Each of these migrants brought with them remnants of their local culture and belief systems: recipes, phrases, and mannerisms, as well as connections to people back home, that may mean that the London of today is a bit more like Bristol or Newcastle than it might otherwise have been. There is more research to be done, but with a clear map of how London was and was not connected to the rest of the country, we can now turn towards understanding how those connections sculpted the country.

To contact the author on Twitter: @adam_crymble

Engineering the industrial revolution (1770-1850)

by Gillian Cookson (University of Leeds)

The Age of Machinery: Engineering the Industrial Revolution, 1770-1850, is published in February by Boydell Press for the Economic History Society’s series ‘People, Markets, Goods’.

SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Click the link, add to basket and enter offer code BB500 in the box at the checkout. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291 and quote the same code. Offer ends on the 19th of March. Any queries please email

9781783272761_4Early machine-makers have always seemed tantalisingly out of reach. This was a localised, workshop-based trade whose products, methods, markets, skill-sets and industrial structure remained ill-defined. Yet out of it, somehow, was created the machinery – especially textile machines and steam engines – fundamental to industrial change in the eighteenth century. There are questions of great significance still unanswered: How could a high-tech mechanical engineering industry emerged from the rudimentary resources of a few localities in northern England? What can be known of the backgrounds and careers of these pioneering mechanical engineers? How did they develop skills, knowledge and system to achieve their ends?

As a research topic this was clearly a winner. But what is the historian to do when faced with such a dearth of substantial sources? Here is the explanation of why the subject has not hitherto been addressed. Evidence of early engineering was seriously lacking, business records almost entirely absent. It turned out, though, that the industry was hiding in plain sight. We’d been looking in the wrong places.

An early breakthrough came in the Hattersley of Keighley papers. Enough of Richard Hattersley’s early accounts and day books have survived, the first from 1793, to demonstrate a thriving pre-factory industry with Hattersley at its hub. He engaged a wider community in specialist component manufacture, using sub-contracting and various other flexible working practices as circumstances demanded. Hattersley’s company did not itself build machinery at that time, but he fed those who did with precision components, vital in making workable machines. The earliest production systems rested on networking, and can be most neatly described as a dispersed factory[1].

It wasn’t that archives had gone missing (though one or two are known to have been lost); but that businesses were so small scale that by and large they never generated any great weight of documentation. It was community-based sources – directories, muster rolls, parish registers, rate books, the West Riding deeds registry, and a painstaking assemblage of all kinds of stray references – that came to the rescue. While this may not exactly be a novel approach to industrial history, it turned out to be the only realistic way into exploring these small, workshop-based ventures in close-knit communities. Remarkably, too, it shone a light on aspects of the industry which business records alone could not have achieved. Community sources bring forward more than an account of business itself, for they set the actors upon their stage, placing engineers within their own environment. In particular, parish register searches, intended as no more than a confirmation of identities and movements, ultimately exposed remarkable connections. As short biographies were constructed, intermarriages and relationships were revealed which seem to explain career changes and migration (often from south to west Yorkshire, or Scotland to Lancashire) which otherwise had seemed random. So this context, which proved so influential, was not confined to engineering itself, but embraced surrounding cultures that were social and familial as much as industrial and technical. Through this information, we can infer some of the motives and concerns which impacted upon business decision-making.

All this, then, is central to The Age of Machinery. For a fully rounded account, other contexts needed unpacking: Which were the seminal machines, in terms of using new materials and parts that demanded different kinds of skills? Where did technological concepts originate, and how did technology move around? Why did engineering lag a generation behind its customer industry, textiles, in moving into factories? How did bans on machinery exportation and artisan emigration impact upon textile engineering, and why were they abandoned? And in an environment generally very welcoming of innovation, how to explain Luddism?

To contact the author:


[1] See Gillian Cookson (1997) ‘Family Firms and Business Networks: Textile Engineering in Yorkshire, 1780–1830’, Business History, 39:1, 1-20

‘Quakers, Coercion and pre-modern Growth: Why Friends’ Formal Institutions for Contract Enforcement Did Not Matter for Early Modern Trade Expansion’

by Ester Sahle (University of Bremen)

barclays_bank_limited_signIn the wake of the Libor scandal in 2012, Barclay’s bank suffered severe reputational damage. In response, its CEO promised a return to the bank’s Quaker roots. With this he referred to Barclay’s history as a Quaker-founded bank, and the proverbial Quaker honesty. The idea of the honest Quaker businessman is part of popular culture and historians have argued that honesty in business was an inherent trait of Quakerism from its beginnings.

The Society of Friends, learned opinion would have it, disowned culpable bankrupts. Thereby, it created an incentive for Friends to be honest in their conduct of business. The empirical basis for these claims however is curiously thin. The literature cites few actual instances of disownments for business-related offences from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most known cases stem from the nineteenth century, when this was indeed common practice. The story of Quaker business honesty is thus based on a strong assumption of institutional and cultural continuity.

The Library of the Society of Friends holds records of London Quaker meetings dating back to the 1660s, when Friends first appeared in the capital. Consulting Quaker meetings’ minutes, disciplinary records, as well as journals and letters of London Quaker businessmen, I conducted the first large scale empirical study of London Quaker meeting’s attitudes towards debt and bankruptcy, c.1660 – 1800.

Surprisingly, these meetings rarely sanctioned business offenders prior to the 1750s. For about 100 years after its conception, the Society of Friends showed no particular interest in its members’ conduct of business. What is more, the letters and diaries of Quaker businessmen in this period contain no evidence that that they feared repercussions from the Society. Quaker businessmen in financial difficulties discussed their impending bankruptcy procedures, or fear of being incarcerated for debt. The possibility of disownment from the Society however, did not figure among their concerns. This indicates that the punishment of offenders was not common enough to work as a deterrence.

From the 1750s onwards, however, this changed. Numbers of disownments for business-related offences skyrocketed. The last decades of the eighteenth century saw far more disownments for business-related offences than the 100 years before.

What caused this change? The new emphasis on honesty in business was part of the Quaker reformation, a movement within Quakerism which refocused the sect’s ideals. Reform movements within religious denominations are not uncommon, what set the Quaker reformation apart was its stated emphasis on protecting the Society’s reputation, and focus on business conduct.

These priorities were a response to a political crisis of the 1750s, which took place in the Quaker-founded colony of Pennsylvania. Erupting over internal disagreements about who was to cover the expenses for the colony’s defense during the Seven Years War, it led to a public scandal which shook Quakerism across the Atlantic World. Contemporary media accused the Quakers of failing to protect the colony’s population from French soldiers and native American raiders. Quaker politicians supposed motivation, their pacifist doctrine was merely a mask for selfish greed. Pamphlets published in London attacked individual Quaker businessmen as war profiteers, who were accumulating fortunes at the expense of the lives of innocent civilians.

In other words, just like Barclay’s Bank in the 21st century, the mid-eighteenth century Quakerism suffered severe reputational damage. The sect’s new focus on honesty in business was a response to this. The Society of Friends conducted an exercise of corporate responsibility, which was a tremendous success – so successful that 250 years later, Quakerism and honesty remain inseparable in the minds of lay people and Historians alike.

Friends went on to become leaders in important ethical concerns, such as the abolition of the slave trade. Today, the Society of Friends indeed stands for an exceptional ethical approach to many areas of public life. What this story tells us is that taking action against reputational damage can lead to institutional change. And institutions shape culture. In other words, corporate social responsibility can indeed lead to a better conduct of business, to the benefit of society as a whole.


Retail revolution and the village shop (1660–1860)

By Jon Stobart (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Today, village shops are often seen as central to village life and their closure is greeted with alarm because, like pubs, they act as a litmus for the health and vitality of our rural communities.

Yet we know little about the long-term history of village shops: how widespread they were, what they sold, how they traded, who their customers were and how they related to the wider community. This is partly because they have been overlooked by historians of retailing, who are dazzled by the bright lights of the city and the seemingly revolutionary changes wrought by department stores and chain stores, who are seen as ushering in “modern” practise like display, fixed prices and leisure shopping. Rural historians have long focused on the production of the countryside; marketing is of interest only when it comes to selling the produce of farms.


This article rescues village shops from both the neglect of historians and the rose-tinted perspective of nostalgia. It reveals how shopkeepers like Ralph Edge, an ironmonger in late seventeenth-century Cheshire, stocked goods from around the world, including calicos from India, tobacco from across the Atlantic, raisins from the Mediterranean; how Rebecca Course managed the credit of her customers to her shop in early-Victorian Buckinghamshire; and how Hardy Woolley mixed retailing in rural Lincolnshire with writing books of trade hints for his fellow shopkeepers.

We know about these people through their entries in trade directories, often with people listing several trades alongside their shop; their inventories, which tell us about their stock held, shop fittings, and sometimes their by-employments; their account books, which reveal prices, identify their customers and their shopping habits and uncover often complex credit arrangements; their diaries and memoirs, which let us into the lifeworld of a small number of shopkeepers and give us some understanding of their motivations and concerns.

Not every village had its own shop, of course, but most of England’s rural population was within easy walking distance of a shop. Whilst the image of the general store is perhaps misleading, they supplied a wide range of items, bringing the expanding world of goods into rural society. We should not judge them against the contested and problematic standards of urban modernity, but rather as businesses and social spaces that served the needs of their customers. The entries in Charles Small’s mid nineteenth-century account book which record mending baskets and mangling clothes for some of his customers may seem quaint and old-fashioned at a time when department stores were emerging in major cities. And the agonising of Thomas Turner about whether to execute an order for distraining the goods of Mr Darby, who owed him about £18 in shop debts, could be seen as a sign of weak business practice. Yet these men – and thousands of other men and women like them – were running businesses that thrived on customer loyalty and their place within the socio-economic fabric of their village communities. They were in the swing of broader changes in retail practice, but deeply embedded in their localities.


The full article is published on the Economic History Review and is available here

To contact the author: @Jon_Stobart




On archives, macroeconomics and labour markets

Everything (well,… most things) you know about wages 1650 -1800 is wrong. That’s a great opportunity for historians

by Judy Stephenson (University of Oxford)


My forthcoming paper in the Economic History Review (abstract available here) makes some big claims about the level of nominal and real wages in urban England before industrialization. There is an early working paper version here

Specifically, I argue that the data used for the years between 1650 and 1800 are completely wrong because the people who compiled them (who go back in some cases to the 1930s and late nineteenth century) took figures from bills for construction services rather than actual wage books. As an actual wage book from the contractor who built the South West Tower of St Paul’s shows, men were not paid these charge out rates, they were paid considerably less.

This has some big ramifications for some influential economists and historians who have relied on long established data sets of ‘builders wages’, such as those of Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1955, 1956) to create macroeconomic models of the past to calculate real wages and infer GDP; to argue that Britain had ‘high wages’; or a comparative advantage in traded goods; or a narrower ‘skill premium’ and better institutions.

In truth, that these wages were ‘wrong’ is in no way surprising to anyone who has ever done work on early modern earning. Any historian of the eighteenth century sensed that these ‘average wages’ were unreasonably high and that their implied welfare ratios gave a falsely rosy picture. (As someone face palmed; ‘A labourer in London able to afford a respectable basket of goods for a family in the mid eighteenth century?? Have you read Dorothy George?’). Those who have ever worked with labour records and account books know that the homogenous figures found by Elizabeth Gilboy were questionable, and indeed in 2011, John Hatcher had successfully called into question the golden age of the fifteenth century. ‘Real’ day wages and wage accounts are always fascinatingly messy, unpredictable, and varied, yet econometricians clung to the old data sets because they believed it was too difficult to find anything else.

Chart showing comparative real wages, in grams of silver, of European cities 1650 -1800, based on Allen, (2001), where the nominal wage has been reduced by 25%.

My findings make the idea that Britain was a ‘high wage’ economy in the long eighteenth century hard to sustain. If paid wages were 25% lower than we thought, the real wage for labourers through this period in London was not the highest by far. Rather, it seems, they were at the lower end of NW European advanced economies.

This is exciting for economists who think that explaining why the industrial revolution happened in Britain is the ‘Holy Grail’ (it’s back up for grabs). But, the debunking of these inaccurate wage series also makes it a really exciting time for people who want to understand the role of labour in the economy, and who think that the period before collective bargaining and factories has some strong parallels with our own. Lots has been written about the decline of ‘history’ in economic history, but the new opportunity is as wide and bright for historians as it is for economists and econometricians. This breakthrough in this long-run view on wages came not from new statistical techniques, but from the margins of dusty parchment, little iron pins, raggy old papers, smudged watered down ink, and the tentative ‘x’s’ and proud flourishes of the archives.

It’s time to stop recycling tired old data sets and expecting new technology to tell us something different about them. There is a wealth of sources and data in London archives, which have never been used before because they didn’t look comparable to Elizabeth Gilboy’s ‘day rates’, but which offer historians and economists the potential to look at earning, bargaining and the capital labour relationship in new ways. There is exciting work in progress from established and new scholars in the field. No one data set will ever be able to replace the supposed reliability of Phelps Brown and Hopkins, but even they were very tentative about their sources.

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References list available here

Five hundred years of French economic stagnation: from Philippe Le Bel to the Revolution, 1280-1789

by Leonardo Ridolfi (IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca)

In 2008, output per capita in France amounted to around $22,000 dollars per year. After the Second World War, in 1950, annual average income per capita reached $5,000 dollars, while in 1820, at the beginning of the first official national statistics, GDP per capita averaged $1,100 (Maddison, 2010). Nevertheless, precise knowledge of economic growth in France stops when we get back as far as 1820; before this date, the quantitative reconstruction of economic development is shrouded in mystery.

That mystery lies in the difficulty of uncovering sufficient resource material, devising adequate measures of economic performance in the past, and ultimately interpreting the complexity of the dynamics involved. These dynamics stretch far beyond just the mere economic sphere and concern the way a society is itself organised and structured. Nevertheless, several questions spring to mind.

What was the level of material living standards between the thirteenth and the late eighteenth century, from the early stages of state formation to the French Revolution? How did per capita incomes evolve over time? And were French workers richer or poorer than their European counterparts during the pre-industrial period?

This research provides answers to these questions by estimating the first long-run series of output per capita for France from 1280 to 1789.

The study reveals one important conclusion: the dominant pattern was stagnation in levels of output per capita. For the first time indeed, these estimates document quantitatively and in the aggregate what was previously known only qualitatively or for some regions by the classic works of French historiography (Goubert, 1960; Le Roy Ladurie, 1966): the French economy was an inherently stagnating growthless system, a ‘société immobile’, which at the beginning of the eighteenth century was not much different than five centuries earlier.

At the time of the death of King Philip the Fair in 1314, France was a leading economy in Europe and output per capita averaged $900 per year. Almost five centuries later, this threshold was largely unchanged, but the France of King Louis XVI now belonged to the group of the least developed countries in Western Europe. In the 1780s, per capita income was slightly above $1,000, about half the level registered in England and the Low Countries.

Nevertheless, stagnation was not the same as stability. The French economy was highly volatile and experienced multiple peaks and troughs. In addition, these results reject the argument that there was no long-run improvement in living standards before the Industrial Revolution, demonstrating that GDP per capita rose more than 30% between the 1280s and the 1780s.

Yet most of the rise was explained by a single episode of economic growth that took place prior to the Black Death between the 1280s and the 1340s and which shifted the trajectory of growth onto a higher path.

Overall, these estimates suggest that the evolution of the French economy can be suitably interpreted as an intermediate case between the successful example of England and the Low Countries and the declining patterns of Italy and Spain. Being neither a southern country nor a northern one, the growth experience of France seems to reflect this geographical heterogeneity.



Goubert, Pierre (1960) École pratique des hautes etudes, Laboratoire cartographique, Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 à 1730: contribution a l’histoire sociale de la France du 17e siècle, Sevpen.

Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy (1966) Les paysans de Languedoc Vol. 1. Mouton.

Maddison, Angus (2010) Historical Statistics of the World Economy: 1-2008 AD, Paris.